Nigeria -- The legend of Cardinal Francis Arinze, a
contender to become the first pope from Africa in 1,500
years, stems from a moment of crisis in Nigeria's Catholic
heartland. It was the early 1970s, and the government had
ordered all European and American priests -- most of the
Catholic leadership at the time -- out of the country.
political purge left Arinze and a handful of Nigerian
priests with a massive job and few resources to do it,
church leaders here said. But Arinze, the first African-born
archbishop in this grubby trading center on the Niger River,
acted swiftly to replace the departed Westerners with
Students take communion at a
seminary in Onitsha, where the archdiocese has
grown so rapidly that it now sends its young
priests to Chad, Cameroon, Sierra Leone, Europe
and the United States. (Craig
Timberg -- The Washington Post)
lay people, including women, into key jobs, the church
leaders said. He traveled the region in his battered white
Peugeot, recruiting young men into the priesthood through
urgent, plain-spoken appeals. With their grasp of the area's
language and culture, these new priests eventually proved
more adept than the foreigners at attracting new believers.
shift to Nigerian leadership, many here say, helped
transform this archdiocese into one of the fastest-growing
Catholic communities in Africa, which, in turn, is the
continent where the church is growing faster than any other.
Since the purge of foreign-born priests, church membership
in the territory once overseen by Arinze has quintupled
through a combination of conversion and the burgeoning size
of Catholic families. Two out of every three residents of
the area reportedly are Catholic.
Arinze moved to a post in the Vatican in 1985, after nearly
18 years as archbishop of Onitsha, he left a church built in
his image: devout, unostentatious, deeply conservative on
moral questions and distinctly African. They are the same
qualities, said Catholics here, that Arinze, 72, would bring
to the papacy if he is elected to succeed John Paul II in
the conclave that begins Monday. Vatican analysts rank
Arinze among a handful of leading contenders, along with at
least two Latin Americans.
unapologetically traditional views on sexual issues have
provoked some criticism. In a speech in Washington in 2003,
he denounced homosexuality and pornography; last year he
suggested that Catholics who favored abortion should be
barred from holy communion.
Nigerian Catholics, talk of Arinze possibly becoming pope
elicits a mixture of elation and skepticism. Many doubt that
a church run for so long by Europeans would select an
African leader, even if the church's membership has moved
decisively southward. Latin America and Africa, along with
developing regions in other continents, are home to
two-thirds of all Catholics. Of the world's 1.1 billion
Catholics, an estimated 150 million are in Africa, and about
19 million of those are in Nigeria.
people say, if not for his color, [Arinze] is surely the
most qualified," said George Adimike, 26, a voluble
seminarian here dressed in long white robes and black
sandals. "If we had an African pope it would show that
humanity is a universal thing."
is among more than 1,000 seminarians training for the
priesthood in this southern section of Nigeria. At the
campus in Onitsha, prayers begin at 5:20 a.m. By the time
roosters announce the dawn, the young men already are deep
into an hour of meditation to prepare for Mass, delivered in
the Ibo language to the gentle rhythms of drums.
newest seminary campus, opened in 2000 to handle surging
enrollment, was named after the Rev. Michael Tansi, a former
teacher of Arinze who was beatified in 1998, putting him on
track to become the first saint from West Africa. A statue
of Tansi sits in a garden on campus and his intense,
bespectacled visage adorns ceremonial robes worn by priests
Overflowing with seminarians, the Onitsha archdiocese
increasingly sends its young priests to Chad, Cameroon,
Sierra Leone, and even to Europe and the United States,
where recruitment of new priests has been lagging. The
Catholic faith has arguably become the most important export
from a region that contributes few other products to the
world than brake pads and palm oil.
church is still young here, so the people are very
enthusiastic, just as it was in Europe and America" once,
said Ignatius M. C. Obinwa, rector of the seminary. "Now it
is our time to produce priests and send them to other places
to evangelize. They have fed us. Now it's time for us to
beyond the orderly grounds of the seminary, the vigor of the
religious movement built by Arinze is hard to miss: Many
trucks on the highways bear drawings of Jesus in flowing
robes, or Christian messages such as "Jesus is the Way."
Colorful, life-size statues of Jesus and the Virgin Mary are
sold at roadside stalls amid piles of garbage. Nuns can be
seen riding through Onitsha's squalid and dangerous streets
on the backs of motorbikes.
Catholic missionaries arrived here from Europe in 1885, and
most paid the ultimate price, dying from malaria and other
tropical diseases. But the dominant Ibo tribe here, whose
traditional religion had elements of sacrifice and rituals
similar to those of Catholicism, began accepting the new
faith. That was especially true after Irish missionaries in
the early 1900s began building the region's first schools,
enticing many practitioners of traditional Ibo religion to
send their children to classes led missionaries, most of
whom were white.
church leadership became more Nigerian with the rise of
Tansi and, later, Arinze, who was born to the Ibo faith and
converted to Catholicism at age 9. He became archbishop in
1967, at the start of the war in the breakaway state of
Biafra, in which the Ibo and other southeastern tribes
sought independence from an authoritarian government. After
the end of that war in 1970, the victorious federal
government expelled the foreign-born priests for supposedly
supporting the rebel cause.
organizing a visit to Onitsha by Pope John Paul II in 1982,
Arinze moved to the Vatican in 1985 and eventually rose to
become the pope's adviser on ritual and the sacraments. He
also was the liaison to other religions such as Islam,
allowing him to draw on his experience from Nigeria, where
the north is predominantly Muslim.
Vatican post, Arinze has become a controversial figure to
many American Catholics because of his rigid views on
matters of doctrine. Arinze announced during the 2004 U.S.
presidential election that Catholics who do not support
making abortion illegal -- a group that included Democratic
presidential nominee John F. Kerry -- should be not be
permitted to take the Eucharist during Mass.
earlier, Arinze provoked shock and protest at Georgetown
University, when as graduation speaker he denounced what he
called threats to family life.
parts of the world, the family is under siege," he told the
students. "It is opposed by an anti-life mentality as is
seen in contraception, abortion, infanticide and euthanasia.
It is scorned and banalized by pornography, desecrated by
fornication and adultery, mocked by homosexuality, sabotaged
by irregular unions and cut in two by divorce."
statements are not controversial in Onitsha, or among
Catholics in most African countries, where homosexuality is
both illegal and regarded as unnatural. The Vatican's
teachings against abortion, euthanasia and contraception
also draw little dissent here. And although seminary
students acknowledge the difficulty of maintaining their vow
of chastity, they say the sacrifice is central to their idea
of the priesthood.
sexual feelings," acknowledged Augustine Umeh, 27, a
seminarian with a gentle voice. But he added, "If you are
alone, all of your mind and everything will be focused on
the church, the people in the parish."
church actually said priests could marry, we would leave the
seminary," Umeh declared. "We cherish that celibate life so
and other young men, the notorious corruption and social
inequities of Nigeria also serve as an inspiration to become
priests. Few other choices, they say, would allow them to
stand apart from the illicit exchanges of money central to
politics and business here.
than anything, these fervent young Catholics say they have
received a call from God to serve, much as their heroes
Tansi and Arinze did before them.
two decades at the Vatican, Arinze has remained a regular
visitor to Onitsha and also to his home village, Eziowelle,
about a half-hour drive down deeply rutted dirt roads. A
scheduled visit in August stands to hold even more meaning
for Onitsha's graduating seminarians, who are scheduled to
be ordained by Arinze.
the conclave meeting, they know that other forces may
becomes pope," said Livins Ugocsukwu, 29, "who knows?"